If someone wants to convince you race has any bearing on intelligence, they better have darn compelling evidence to support their claim. Before you allow yourself to accept it as fact and repeat the claim, you should consider it your duty to examine evidence thoroughly.
In 2006, University of Chicago geneticist Bruce Lahn published articles in the journal Science, which found differences in the frequency of certain genes that could potentially offer a cognitive advantage among populations of humans. Lahn’s data shows the supposedly advantageous genes occur with greater frequency in Eurasia and with less frequency in some parts of Africa.
The papers also noted the appearance of the genes coincided with major advances in human development.
Could Lahn’s results explain why human civilization made huge leaps at points in our past? Further, could the data be used to demonstrate real differences in intelligence among groups of people from different areas of the world?
The answers depend largely on the preconceptions with which an individual views the problem and the extent to which they are actually willing to evaluate the claim.
For those with a predisposition to link intelligence and race (I use the term “race” as it is the word used in articles describing the research in Science), it was all they needed to confirm their prejudices. For those hostile to the idea of political correctness, the papers were a great chance to show that empirical science could disprove the equality of humanity.
Quietly, Lahn’s theory seems to have fizzled out. The conclusions drawn by the authors of the paper and political commentators were based on the idea of an intelligence advantage gained by individuals with specific gene variants.
However, the papers only examined the frequency of the variants in populations and the date at which it appeared in the human genome. Importantly, they made no attempt to test whether or not the genes were linked with increased intelligence
As reported in Science in late 2006, the variants have no relationship to IQ.
I fault Lahn – an exceptionally bright and ambitious scientist – for making conclusions that stretched too far beyond the evidence he gathered.
As I am reminded by the faculty on campus, scientists have a duty to conduct rigorous and thorough research and report it to their peers. When their conclusions are discussed in the media, they have a further responsibility to ensure their message is not distorted.
But I also fault anyone who heard about his theories and passed them on as fact without really thinking about their validity.
One of the best ways to protect oneself from making such a faulty inference is to take a statistics course.
While I realize this suggestion might seem terribly boring and uncool, it’s important to know how to use information properly. A course in statistics will help you learn how to determine relatively simple but vital information, such as whether or not two groups are truly different or how to interpret a correlation between two variables.
More importantly, I urge you to spend time just thinking about whether data presented makes any sense.
Unfortunately, ideologues are too quick to interpret scientific research to suit their often controversial beliefs. The best defense against the manipulation of science is a critical mind and a willingness to question politically-driven extrapolations.
Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology masters student. His column appears every Tuesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.